Skip to main content
Select Source:

Debs, Eugene Victor

DEBS, EUGENE VICTOR


Eugene V. Debs (18551926) was a pioneer labor organizer and five-time Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Debs advocated abolition of child labor, the right of women to vote, unemployment compensation, and a graduated income tax. His proposals were radical in the early twentieth century, but later became standard public policy for both major political parties.

Born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs left home at age 14 to work in a railroad shop, where he was paid 50 cents a day for scraping grease and paint from locomotives. He later became a locomotive fireman, and in 1875 Debs helped organize a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. An active union member, he became editor of the association's Firemen's Magazine in 1878 and was elected national secretary and treasurer of the union in 1880. He also served as city clerk of Terre Haute from 1879 to 1883 and as a member of the Indiana legislature in 1885.

Early in his career Debs gained recognition as an effective labor organizer. In addition to organizing numerous locals for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen he was an organizer for other railroad-related labor organizations. They included the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and the Order of Railway Telegraphers. Since these organizations failed to join together in their dealings with management, Debs found a union that would include all railroad workers, the American Railway Union in 1893. He later became its president. Against Debs's advice the new union participated in the Pullman Strike of 1894 in sympathy with Pullman Palace Car workers. One of the most famous strikes in U.S. labor history, it nearly paralyzed commerce in the western half of the nation before it was finally halted by a federal injunction. For his involvement in the strike, Debs was jailed for six months in 1895 in Woodstock, Illinois.

Debs spent much of his prison time reading and was deeply impressed by the works of Karl Marx. He became convinced that no single union could protect the rights of workers. In the presidential election of 1896 he campaigned for the Democratic-Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, but a year later Debs announced his conversion to socialism.

For the next 30 years Debs was the leading spokesmen for democratic socialism to millions of U.S. citizens. He helped form the Socialist Party of America in 1898 and was its presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Debs attracted huge crowds during his energetic campaigns throughout the country; he was an exceptionally effective public speaker, winning wide support through his personal warmth, integrity, and sincerity. His speeches also raised much-needed funds for the Socialist Party. Though he failed to win a large percentage of the vote on election day, the number of people who voted for him was substantial, ranging from 96,000 in 1900 to 915,000 in 1920.

Debs's writings and speeches spread his ideas far beyond the confines of a relatively minor political party. In 1912 he ran for president against future president Woodrow Wilson (19131921), former president Theodore Roosevelt (19011909), and incumbent president William Howard Taft (19091913). At the time Debs found that both Wilson and Roosevelt were advocating many of the ideas he had introduced in earlier campaigns. In a spontaneous speech after he won the Socialist Party nomination in 1912 he eloquently expressed his underlying philosophy: "When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. We will be brothers and sisters, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known." Although he again lost the election, Debs considered the campaign a moral victory.

Instead of running for the presidency in 1916, Debs waged an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. In 1920 he ran for president as a Socialist candidate for the last time. He campaigned from a prison cell where he was serving a 10-year sentence for sedition under the 1917 Espionage Act. His case became a rallying point for those who believed he should be freed as a matter of freedom of speech. He was released from prison by order of President Warren Harding (19211923) in 1921, but he never regained his citizenship, which was taken away from him at the time of his sedition conviction. It was restored in 1976, forty years after his death.

Following his release from prison, Debs spent the remaining five years trying to improve his impaired health and attempting to reconstitute the Socialist Party. Yet, in spite of the large and enthusiastic crowds that flocked to hear him, the 1920s was an era of capitalist domination and the Socialist Party was in decline. Although many of his followers had joined the Communist Party, Debs refused to do so because he opposed the Soviet system and its suppression of free speech.

In his final years he concentrated on prison reform, since he had firsthand experience about prison conditions. He also became interested in the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists accused of murder. This case involved heightened public attention towards labor and political radicals. In the summer of 1926 Debs returned to a sanitarium where he had spent extended periods in 1922 and 1924. He died in Elmhurst, Illinois, on October 20, 1926.

See also: William Jennings Bryan, Labor Movement, Pullman Palace Coach Company, Pullman Strike, Railroad Industry, Socialism, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson


FURTHER READING

Constantine, J. Robert, ed. Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Constantine, J. Robert. "Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox." Monthly Labor Review, August, 1991.

Debs, Eugene V. Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.

Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949.

Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

debs advocated abolition of child labor, the right of women to vote, unemployment compensation, and a graduated income tax. his proposals were radical in the early twentieth century, but later became standard public policy for both major political parties.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Debs, Eugene Victor." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Debs, Eugene Victor." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor

"Debs, Eugene Victor." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor

Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926), a leading American union organizer and, after 1896, a prominent Socialist, ran five times as the Socialist party nominee for president.

Eugene V. Debs was born on Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind., where his French immigrant parents, after considerable hardship, had settled. Debs began work in the town's railroad shops at the age of 15, soon becoming a locomotive fireman. Thrown out of work by the depression of the 1870s, he left Terre Haute briefly to find a railroad job but soon returned to work as a clerk in a wholesale grocery company. Even though he was no longer a fireman, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1874 and rose rapidly in the union. In 1878 he became an associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine. Two years later he was appointed editor of the magazine and secretary-treasurer of the brotherhood.

Debs also pursued a political career in the early 1880s. A popular and earnest young man, he was elected city clerk of Terre Haute as a Democrat in 1879 and reelected in 1881. Soon after his second term ended in January 1884, he was elected to the Indiana Legislature, serving one term.

Changing Concept of Unionism

During the 1880s Debs remained a craft unionist, devoted to "orthodox" ideals of work, thrift, and respectable unionism. With the Firemen's Brotherhood as his base, he sought to develop cooperation among the various railroad brotherhoods. A weak federation was achieved in 1889, but it soon collapsed due to internal rivalries. Tired and discouraged, Debs resigned his positions in the Firemen's Brotherhood in 1892, only to be reelected over his protest.

Debs's new project was an industrial union, one which would unite all railroad men, whatever their specific craft, in one union. By mid-1893, the American Railway Union (ARU) was established, with Debs as its first president. Labor discontent and the severe national depression beginning in 1893 swelled the union's ranks. The ARU won a major strike against the Great Northern Railroad early in the spring of 1894. Nevertheless, when the Pullman Company works near Chicago were struck in May, Debs was reluctant to endorse a sympathetic strike of all railroad men. His union took a militant stance, however, refusing to move Pullman railroad cars nationally. By July, Debs felt the boycott was succeeding, but a sweeping legal injunction against the union leadership and the use of Federal troops broke the strike. Debs was sentenced to 6 months in jail for contempt of court, and his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conversion to Socialism

Having moved from craft to industrial unionism, Debs now converted to socialism. Convinced that capitalism and competition inevitably led to class strife, Debs argued that the profit system should be replaced by a cooperative commonwealth. Although he advocated radical change, he rejected revolutionary violence and chose to bring his case to the public through political means. He participated in the establishment of the Social Democratic party in 1898 and its successor, the Socialist Party of America, in 1901.

Debs was the Socialist candidate for president five times. His role was that of a spokesman for radical reform rather than that of a party theorist. A unifying agent, he tried to remain aloof from the persistent factional struggle between the evolutionary Socialists and the party's more revolutionary western wing. As the party's presidential candidate in 1900 and 1904, he led the Socialists to a fourfold increase in national voting strength, from about 97,000 to more than 400,000 votes. While the party's vote did not increase significantly in 1908, Debs drew attention to the Socialist case by a dramatic national tour in the "Red Special," a campaign train. The year 1912 proved to be the high point for Debs and his party. He won 897,011 votes, 6 percent of the total.

Imprisonment for Sedition

When World War I began in 1914, the party met with hard times. The Socialists were the only party to oppose economic assistance to the Allies and the preparedness movement. Debs, while refusing the Socialist nomination for president in 1916, endorsed the party view that President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policies would lead to war. In 1917 America's entrance into war resulted in widespread antagonism toward the Socialists. When Debs spoke out in 1918 against the war and Federal harassment of Socialists, he was arrested and convicted of sedition under the wartime Espionage Act. He ran for the last time as the Socialist presidential candidate while in prison, receiving nearly a million votes, more actual votes (but a smaller percentage of the total) than in 1912.

On Christmas Day 1921, President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs, but Debs could do little to restore life to the Socialist party, battered by the war years and split over the Russian Revolution. Debs had welcomed the Revolution; yet he became very critical of the dictatorial aspects of the Soviet regime, refusing to ally himself with the American Communist party. Debs died on Oct. 20, 1926, having won wide respect as a resourceful evangelist for a more humane, cooperative society.

Further Reading

The most recent edition of Debs's writings is Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, with an introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1948). There are two excellent studies of Debs's career: Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949), and H. Wayne Morgan, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1962). McAlister Coleman, Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid (1930), is the best of the older biographies. Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (1952), and David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955), are invaluable sources on the Socialist party. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugene Victor Debs." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Eugene Victor Debs." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eugene-victor-debs

"Eugene Victor Debs." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eugene-victor-debs

Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926)

Labor organizer

Sources

Early Life. Eugene V. Debs was born in 1855 and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, where his parents settled after emigrating from Alsace. He left school at age fifteen to work for the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad. In 1875, some years after becoming a locomotive fireman for the railroad, Debs helped to organize a lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He was appointed secretary, beginning a rise through the various offices of the brotherhood that Debs combined with several local and state government positions as well as a job clerking for a wholesale grocery house.

Union. Debss significance as a labor organizer stands in sharp contrast to his contemporary Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). While Gompers worked with skilled trade workers, Debs advocated united efforts by the skilled and unskilled and tied unionizing efforts to a comprehensive political agenda. In June 1893 Debs formed the American Railway Union and became its first president. American Railway, one of the new industriai unions open to both skilled and unskilled workers (though not to blacks) gained national prominence within the year when it won an important victory over the Great Northern Railroad; membership quickly swelled to more than 150,000. But the unions fortunes fell just as quickly, after Debs staked them on support for workers in the Pullman Strike (1894), coordinating a national boycott of trains pulling Pullman cars. For a time the ARU managed to paralyze rail traffic, earning notoriety for King Debs. However, the AFL refused to join Debss calls for a national sympathy strike, and the Pullman strike collapsed.

Socialism. In the aftermath Debs, who was indicted and jailed for his role in the strike, became both famous and infamous as a national labor hero. He made contact with prominent socialist spokesmen and joined the Populist political movement, backing the presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. As his political and economic philosophies evolved he began to espouse what he termed a Cooperative Commonwealth, to be colonized by the unemployed in some western state. In 1897, as populism fell apart, Debs turned to outright socialism, declaring The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. Following Debss lead, the American Railway Union, by then much diminished, transformed itself into the Social Democracy of America. In 1900 Debs served as the Social Democratic Partys first presidential candidate. In 1905, after a second presidential candidacy, Debs helped to found the Industriai Workers of the World (IWW), though he later broke with the organization. During World War I Debs was jailed for opposing American intervention. He died in 1926, still espousing his socialist beliefs.

Sources

Eugene V. Debs, Walls and Bars (Chicago: Socialist Party, 1927);

Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/debs-eugene-v-1855-1926

"Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)." American Eras. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/debs-eugene-v-1855-1926

Debs, Eugene Victor

Eugene Victor Debs, 1855–1926, American Socialist leader, b. Terre Haute, Ind. Leaving high school to work in the railroad shops in Terre Haute, he became a railroad fireman (1871) and organized (1875) a local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1880 he became national secretary and treasurer of the brotherhood, and in 1884 he was elected to the Indiana legislature. He resigned (1892) from the brotherhood and launched (1893), instead of a trade union, an industrial union to include all railroad workers, the American Railway Union, of which he became president. After a successful strike against the Great Northern RR, the American Railway Union participated (1894) in the Pullman strike by refusing to service Pullman cars. An injunction, however, was served against the strikers and federal troops, sent to Illinois by President Cleveland over the protest of Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, broke the strike. Debs and others were convicted of violating the injunction and sentenced to a six-month jail term.

While in prison, Debs read widely, including socialist works, and he later became a Socialist. In 1898, he helped form the Social Democratic party (renamed the Socialist party in 1901; again renamed Social Democratic in 1972) and was its presidential candidate in 1900, with 96,000 votes nationally, and in 1904, with 402,000 votes. He became editor of the Socialist weekly Appeal to Reason and lectured widely. After 1900, he grew more bitter in his attacks on trade unionism and more vehement in advocating the organization of labor by industries. He helped to found (1905) the Industrial Workers of the World, but soon withdrew from the movement. Debs was again the Socialist candidate for president in 1908 and 1912.

During World War I, the Socialist party refused to take part in the government war effort and in 1918 Debs, a leading pacifist, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for publicly denouncing the government's prosecution of persons charged with sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917. Although still in a federal penitentiary, he was Socialist candidate for President in 1920 and gathered nearly 920,000 votes. He was released (1921) by order of President Harding. But his health was broken, and he accomplished little in his last years, although he was widely revered as a martyr for his principles.

See studies by H. W. Morgan (1962, repr. 1973), H. W. Currie (1976), N. Salvatore (1982), A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. (1989), M. Young (ed. by C. Ruas, 1999), and E. Freeberg (2008).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Debs, Eugene Victor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Debs, Eugene Victor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor

"Debs, Eugene Victor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor

Debs, Eugene V.

Debs, Eugene V. (1855–1926), Socialist, presidential candidate, war opponent.Born of French immigrant parents in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs became active in the labor movement in the 1870s and created the American Railway Union (ARU), an industrial union, in 1893. Following the federal government's smashing of the ARU‐led Pullman Strike (1894), Debs slowly became convinced that corporate or monopoly capitalism could not be reformed, gravitated toward the socialist movement, and became its best‐known leader and five‐time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

In 1917, Debs led the socialist opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, which he condemned as an imperialist war fought for the interests of the trusts. Arrested for an antiwar, antidraft speech at Canton, Ohio, on 15 June 1918, Debs began serving a ten‐year sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in April 1919. Still in prison, he received nearly 1 million votes as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate in 1920, and was pardoned by President Harding on Christmas Day, 1921. He remained a committed socialist.

Debs's attitude toward war was best expressed in this widely quoted statement: “I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world‐wide war of the social revolution.”
[See also Peace and Antiwar Movements.]

Bibliography

Ray Ginger , The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs, 1949.
Nick Salvatore , Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, 1982.

Norman Markowitz

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Debs, Eugene V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Debs, Eugene V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-v

"Debs, Eugene V.." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-v

Debs, Eugene Victor

Debs, Eugene Victor (1855–1926) US labour organizer. President of the American Railway Union (1893–97), he was imprisoned during the Pullman Strike (1894). He organized the Social Democratic Party (1898), and was five times a presidential candidate (1900–20), even while imprisoned for violation of the Espionage Act (1918). He was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Debs, Eugene Victor." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Debs, Eugene Victor." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor

"Debs, Eugene Victor." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/debs-eugene-victor